Build a Star Tracker for Your DSLR and Make Your Own Star Charts!




Introduction: Build a Star Tracker for Your DSLR and Make Your Own Star Charts!

About: I am a physicist working in research, Making things and sharing the experience with others, helps me in many ways.
If you already have a DSLR camera this is  a cheap and effective method tor wide field astrophotography.

When you face north and observe the stars you will notice that their position is rotated in the east-west direction.  Since a full 360o earth rotation requires 24 hours, in 1 minute the stars shift by 1/4o. If you are looking through a telescope with a field of 1-2 degrees you need a star tracking mechanism to keep your field of view.

The same is true if you want to photograph the sky for a long time. The professional way to do this is to mount your camera on a telescope motorized base. The cheap way to do the same will be discussed in this instructable.

The design is known from the 80’s as a barn door star tracker or a scotch mount. There is a lot of information in the internet where you may find sophisticated designs that try to minimize the systematic errors of the first design.

I will describe the simplest version of this device with a small improvement compared to other designs,  a movable axis that allows calibration.The capability of this system is limited to 20 minutes exposures but this is satisfactory for a DSLR camera with an ISO sensitivity ≥800.

Step 1: Equipment/ Materials / Tools

a. A DSLR camera with ISO > 400 and the option of keeping the shatter open for several minutes (BULB). My Olympus E420 has a maximum sensitivity of 1600 ISO and an open shutter limit of 30min. In the case of my camera a remote control was required to operate the BULB exposure.
b. A steady photographic tripod
c. An adjustable base for mounting the camera. Your camera deserves a good quality one.
d. A telescope finder. Can be substituted with a simple tube, even a soda straw for those with good vision. Ι used half of a broken set of 10x25 binoculars to make mine.

a. Two pieces of plywood 15cmx30cm, thickness 12mm
b. A piano type hinge of length 14-15cm . The axis of the hinge should be as thin as possible. I used two larger hinges of length 7.5cm
c. A piece of 5cm x 15cm alluminum  sheet 2mm thick.
d. A 6mm metric screw of length 8cm. This has a 1mm pitch (M6x1).
e. Common wire 1-2mm thick
f. Pieces of scrap wood and metal for the rest.

Common wood working tools, saws, a drill , a vice etc. Additionally you may need to use a tap of 1/4" to prepare threaded holes on a plate  to mount the construction on the tripod. This type of thread is standard for camera equipment.

Step 2: The Principle of Operation

A full 360o rotation of the earth requires 24 hours, that is  in 1 minute the sky rotates around the polar axis by  1/4 of a degree. If the base of the camera is also rotated in the direction East-West  with the same  velocity the camera will follow the movement of the sky.

The hinge is directed to Polaris with the help of an aiming device such as a telescope finder, We rotate the camera base with the help of a driving bolt. It is convenient to adjust the position of the axis in such a way as to cover the 1/4 of a degree in 1 minute. The bolt is turned manually by making reference to a watch showing the seconds.

The  distance of the bolt from the hinge is related to the step fo the screw. I used  a 6mm screw with a  1mm step therefore the distance  is 229.2mm. Depending on what you are using this calculation has to be modified.

Step 3: Construction

1.Prepare the positions and the holes that will be needed in sequence on the wooden plates.
2. Prepare the wooden angle with the hinge. This has to be done carefully. Set up the wooden plates vertical on a flat surface. Mount the hinge on one of them and the other part on the wooden spacer. First use glue to attach the spacer on the other plate and take care that both plates remain vertical on the surface and touch uniformly on it. When the glue is dry, secure the second plate with scews on the spacer.
3. Prepare the driving bolt. Using a file form its end in a conical shape. The wooden disk should have a minimum diameter of 60mm. mark 12 sectors on the disk.
4. Mount the supports of the axis as shown in the photographs below. The supporting point should be allowed to slide +- 10mm in respect to the expected distance from the hinge of 229.2mm.
5. Prepare and mount the camera base, the finder and the base plate for the tripod.
The finder (or simple tube) should be aligned parallel to the edge of the wooden plate.

Step 4: Calibration

Now you are ready for calibration.
1 .Move the axis as close to the hinge as possible and secure the screws on both plates. Position the wooden angle on a sheet of paper on a flat surface. Then trace the angle that results after 20 turns (20 minutes) of the bolt . This should be exactly 5 degrees but normally it should be larger (in the diagram below this is the point 5.26degrees,88mm ). Measure the angle from the traced triangle better using trigonometry. Repeat several times and take the mean value.
2. Do the same for the other extreme point. In the diagram this resulted in the point 4.92 degrees, 81mm.
3. Find the correct point for the axis by extrapolation. In my case this gave a distance of 82.5 cm.

The accuracy of the measurement is (5.02+- 0.01) degrees corresponding to a deviation of 7 seconds in 20 minutes measurement and to only 1-2 pixel shift for a photograph of a 70 degrees field, 3450 pxls wide.

Step 5: Preparation of the Camera

1. Turn the knob to MANUAL (what else did you expect?)
2. Select  the aperture as small as possible for maximum luminosity (F4 in my case)
3. Select a high sensitivity ISO 400 or higher
4. Select the RAW format if your camera has it (typical in DSLRs)
5. Natural light colour scheme .
6. If your camera has a built in Noise Reduction feature use it. However this will result in slower processing (some minutes). Otherwise take several exposures.
7. Before doing anything focus manually on a distant light or star holding your camera at hand.
8. Learn how the BULB feature works. Olympus E420 needs a remote control for this.
9. Last but not least do not forget to remove the cap!

Step 6: Setting Up the System on Location

1. Charge the camera battery before going there. You may be working for an hour or more.
2. You definitely need a small torch. I use a rechargable one.
3. Take binoculars with you
4. You also need a piece of white cloth to cover your camera for "flat" exposures.
5. Take a watch and attach it on the tracker as shown in the photograph.

Step 7: Orientation

First you have to look north and locate Polaris, the tail star of the Small Bear. The actual position of the north pole is approximately in the mid distance of Polaris (alpha Ursus Minor) and lambda Ursus Minor. The distance of the two stars is about 1.5 degree. If the sky is clear enough lambda should be visible in your finder. Try to center the mid point of the two stars. However for large angle astrophotography, centering Polaris should be adequate.

The photograph below was taken using ISO 400 and 60 sec exposure. The image was turned to grayscale and colors inverted to show the stars in black. The north pole position is shown with a cross.

Step 8: Photographic Procedure

1. Take several field photos for a fixed ISO and a fixed time. Try 2,4,8 minutes
2. Take several photos with the camera covered with its own cap. These are called "dark" exposures.
3. Take also several photos with the camera covered with the white cloth (no rincles). This is useful to eliminate stray light from the ground or vignetting etc. These are called "flat" exposures.

Now you need a stacking programme for astrophotography.
My preference is DeepSkyStacker (freeware) but there are others like GIMP.

Install one of these and feed it with all your exposures. The programme will do the rest.

Step 9: Example 1: the Milky Way and Sagittarius

The photograph of the milky way to the south and Sagittarius ( a part of which is the teapot, lower left) was a single 8 minutes exposure at 800 ISO with flat and dark exposures, all processed with DeepSkyStacker. The starting photograph material was in RAW format while the final output of the program was in TIFF. What you see here has been compressed in JPEG.

The famous star clusters and nebulas in Sagittarius are clearly visible. The brightest part is in the direction of the center of our galaxy! The two stars that are close (bottom center-right) are the cat’s eyes in the tail of Scorpion.

The camera was facing south in very clear night , no moon or lights.

Step 10: Example 2: Andromeda's Galaxy

This is a part of a larger photograph the result of the superposition of 3 x 4 minute exposures using ISO 800.
It is worth noting that the faintest stars mapped are of magnitude 8.5 while 6 is the limit of the naked eye and 4-5 is what we usually see in a light polluted sky.

The camera was facing North-East high.

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    7 years ago on Introduction

    Please explain the math for the 229mm base length and the relationship between that and the 6mm screw with the 1 mm step. I don't understand where the 720mm came from (obviously 360 x 2, but why that?) Thanks!


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Hello EvanD6, thanks for getting me back to this project! Here is the math:

    In one day (24*60min) the earth rotates 360 degrees or 2π radians. That is
    360/(24*60)=1/4 of a degree per minute. I used a 1mm step screw and I
    wanted to cover the 1/4 of a degree for every full turn.

    The angle spanned in radians is 1mm/L where L is the distance of the hinge. Therefore 1mm/L=(1/4)*(π/180) which gives the length L=(720/π ) mm.

    Mighty T H O R

    hello, wonderful project. can you improvise this to make it move via a motor to leave it alone and expose?


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    Thank you. In fact a motorized barn door is easier to use. For this you need a stepping motor with a control circuit and a reference frequency provided either by a crystal or by a 555 timer. Some people have done this. However it is very effective as it is. In the case of digital photography I don't think that you need exposure times greater than 10min, something that this setup can give you. I overlap several 4 or 8 minutes exposures. Since the time this instructable was published I made two modifications a) I use e telescope view finder and b) Instead of a watch I use a 1sec signal in the form of a song that i recorded to my cell phone. This makes it much easier to turn the disk accurately every second.

    I'm confused in calibration. What is "the other extreme point"? Once we find "the correct point for the axis" what do we do with it?


    Reply 12 years ago on Introduction

    The requirement for the axis is to provide an angle displacement of 1/4 of a degree in 1 turn . However since the axis of the hinge has dimensions (~5-6mm) it is not possible to obtain the correct angle simply by measuring the distance from it and setting L=229.2mm. This is why the system of the rotating bolt must have the possibility to shift +- 0.5 cm towards and far away from the hinge axis. These two measurements in the case of 20 turns( 5 degrees) are shown in the diagram. The angles are obtained by tracing the angle on paper and using trigonometry, a simple measurement with a protractor is not accurate enough. The process is repeated several times and the mean values are obtained. The red dot shows the position of the rotating bolt which corresponds to 5 degrees found by extrapolation of the line. The bolt is brought there and fixed with the screws forever. Then the only systematic error you are left with , is the correct orientation to the polar axis of the earth's rotation. I hope the above is useful to you.


    12 years ago on Introduction

    THIS IS OUSOME!!!!!!!!!! how do you get those types of photos? i like looking at the sky, i do not have a dslr, my mom has a film one, but i have a older version of a kodak easy share, do you think the would work? (specs: 3 x optical zoom 5 x digital zoom 8.2 x mega pixils) thanks! :D


    Reply 12 years ago on Introduction

    Dear Salomon1996, I would not try with the kodak. If you have any film camera is OK. People has been using this type of trackers with film cameras for a long time. These cameras have the open shutter feature. The only problem is the film. You need a high sensitivity film e.g. 400 ISO and its development is not trivial. The best is to use a slide film even with 200 ISO. The results are even better than mine. You have to make long exposures 10min lat least. Check the online journal Sky adn Telescope for astrophotography.